Here we are in February, having worked on handstand, adho mukha vrksasana for a month now. Due to upper back and shoulder pain, I'm going to be moving on from this series starting in a few days.
To prep for handstand, three primary areas need to be prepped: lower belly (think navel to pubic bone), shoulders, and the wrists. Secondary to that are the forearms. Taking several cues from my mentor Danni, I'll break it down.
One of the best ways to activate the low belly (aka transverse and rectus abdominus) is to put a block in between your inner thighs, as close to your groin as you can get it while laying on your back. With the narrowest setting facing you, give the block a squeeze while exhaling with a "shhh" sound. This style of exhale breathing comes from Pilates, but works because it helps to contract and compress the entire abdominal wall.
Several exercise recommendations:
- Navasana (boat) to ardha paripurna navasana (low boat) with a block in between the thighs, x10 reps. Hands can stay at heart's center with chest lifted or hands right behind the hips to take pressure off the low back.
- Legs up with wall with a block in between the thighs. Lift the chest so the shoulders are hovering, with hands to frame the ears (fingers not interlaced). Slowly lower your legs while keeping your toes flex, pointed, or fointed and continuously squeeze the block. Keep your chest lowered if you experience any low back pain, or take a slight bend in your knees.
- Core + shoulder activation: hold the block in between your palms, with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads in contact with the block (no fingertips). Bring the block up and over your head with your arms fully extended behind you. Bring one leg up the wall while the other leg is hovering just off the mat--this will mimic the L-shape you will get into with L-kicks. Keep your legs activated with a flex, point, or foint of the toes, and on your exhale (don't forget the "shhh" breath!), squeeze the block and lift up through your chest so the block comes towards your raised foot. Hold at the top for 5 counts, and repeat on the same side ending with a round of pulses. Switch sides.
Hands: Wrists (and forearms)
With the weight bearing going on in your hands, it's important to take care of the wrists and prime them to increase flexibility and stability. Like I went over in my Arm Balances post, I'll go through the same actions here.
If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.
You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing.
When you bear weight on your hands, you'll wants to maximize the surface area of your hands. Widen your fingers as much as possible, and have a basketball grip. What I mean is that your fingers shouldn't be completely flat on the mat. It's minute, but a gentle gripping of the mat will ensure you can have a strong hold of your mat since your weight distribution will be up and over your shoulders--something you don't experience on a daily basis.
To activate the forearms, hold your arms up over your head. Open your palms, then make a fist. Open them back again, make a fist. Repeat as fast as you can for at least 30 seconds or until you feel like your arms will fall off, and you'll be prepared to do L-kicks!
Let me know how these tips worked for you! Danni also has a great Youtube video up on his channel, and I encourage you to check it out here. Reach out with any questions, and enjoy your practice!
As I mentioned, the shoulders need to be open to support your pelvis coming up and over them. Block work is great--remember to hold the block at the sides with NO fingertips and squeeze it with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads only. Try this with bent elbows or your arms raised to shoulder height, and be aware if your shoulders start to hike up towards your ears.
Continuously squeezing the block, start to lift the block up directly over your head. From here, pause. Take a moment to see if your ribs started to flare out the sides of your body, and if you started to take a slight backbend. Engage your core by bringing your navel up and in towards your spine--think of it as zipping up a jacket two sizes too small from the base of your pelvis up through your collarbones. After correcting this, continue to bring the block up and over behind your head until you start to backbend more or until your shoulders tell you to stop. You should feel like your arms wants to fall off now!
If a block is not available, you can open up the shoulders by doing this same thing with a strap, except there will be nothing to push into. Not to worry, the opening is very similar.
L-Kicks, or Swing and Hops
First things first: The pelvis needs to be level. One things I see that my students love doing is to lift their leg up from downward dog so much that one of their hips is facing up towards the ceiling instead of towards the ground. Take note of where your pelvis is in space the next time you lift one of your legs up in preparation for a standing asana.
- Dial your hip down in line with the other
- Flex your toes towards your face
- See that your kneecap is pointed towards the mat
Now, we're ready for our first L-kick. I like to start out in a forward fold (big toes touching), with my hands about 4-5 inches away from my toes. Other teachers cue to start in a shortened downward dog, which also works. Shift the shoulders a smidge past your wrists, and pick a leg to lift up towards the ceiling. Level out your hips, then take a deep bend in your opposite leg until you come to the ball mound of your foot. You can stay here and get more comfortable with bearing weight on your hands. Otherwise, using your lifted leg as a lever, launch off through your bent leg and maintain your L-shape, squeezing your inner thighs on the way up to keep your core engaged. After time, you will find hang time and can start to bring one knee in towards your chest. From knee in towards chest, your leg will eventually straighten to meet your lever leg and ta-da! Handstand.